Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal Arts
6 minutes for reading

OH, LOVE: Henry II, Catherine de’ Medici and her three royal sons

OH, LOVE: Henry II, Catherine de' Medici and her three royal sons
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Artwork by: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop


Who ruled France for most of the second half of the 16th century? Incomplete sons of Henry II. Francis II was barely on his feet and completely incapable of ruling the country.

Charles IX, who succeeded him, reigned at ten and left the world at twenty-four, goofy, temperamental, and excitable. As an entree — Henry III, for his unsuitable orientation for the continuation of the dynasty, was nicknamed «Prince of Sodom».

Who stood behind the three hapless brothers? Well, it’s pretty clear who. A small and weak woman barely a meter and a half tall — Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother.

The surname Medici speaks of descent from successful Florentine merchants, not even nobility — should they dream of the throne? But her grandfather was the pope himself, and the pope’s granddaughter was already quite equal to the second son of Francis I, and fourteen-year-old Catherine, in 1561, departed to his peer-fiancé.

To get accustomed to the new place, Catherine shows her main virtue — a flair for the unusual and new. The princess is short — but are not the shoemakers of Italy the best in Europe? For the first time in a thousand years, the bride appears in front of the groom and the new family in shoes with heels! Catherine recalls ancient secrets or, more accurately, reinvents the high heel.

This is just the beginning of the innovations Catherine brings, and one of them becomes France’s national pride — she radically changes French cuisine. Catherine brought with her four hundred cooks from Florence, who taught the wild French how to cook so that they would not be ashamed in front of Italy. And in addition, on each of the 34 days of the wedding, the table served a new variety of ice cream, a dish medieval Europe is hardly known.

It must be admitted that the cards Catherine’s fate gave her before marriage were quite bad. Low, full, red-haired, with eyes rolled back — not much help, even high heels. She herself liked her husband, and she, to all appearances, quite loved him with all her heart. But here with, reciprocal love did not work — soon, young Henry fell in love with Diane de Poitiers, who was older than him by almost two decades. How could the clever but unassuming Catherine compete with her? She finds another extraordinary solution — she becomes a close friend of a powerful favorite.

The princess built her relations at the French court successfully. Her husband appreciates her indulgence to his weaknesses and tact, Diane considers her the lesser evil, father-in-law admires her intelligence and the fact that she participates even in the favorite royal pastime — hunting.


Генрих II и Екатерина Медичи в окружении их семьи, вторая половина XVI века
Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici surrounded by their family, the second half of the 16th century / wikipedia.org


For the sake of decency, women in those days rode a horse with only their legs overhanging to one side of the saddle, which was extremely uncomfortable. Catherine introduced in France the habit of riding, as they said at the time, in the manner of the Amazons, and in order not to accidentally violate decency when riding, Catherine made another sensational invention — pantaloons.

All seems to be well, but the years pass, and there is no heir. Up to a certain point, the presence of Catherine’s son was not so crucial for the state — still, the throne would not be inherited by her husband Henry, the second son of Francis I, and his older brother Francois. But in August 1536, he suddenly died. Catherine’s husband suddenly becomes crown prince, and she becomes the future queen of France.

Now, an heir is even more needed. From divorce, Catherine is saved only by inexhaustible ingenuity — they say that helped the king’s physician, Jean Fernel, who seemed to advise sex positions that increase the likelihood of conception. And so, in the eleventh year of marriage, Catherine did give birth to a son, resolving the issue of succession to the throne.

This was just the beginning — for twelve years, she gave birth to ten, and seven survived (not a bad rate at the time!), and four male children — it seemed that the Valois dynasty had nothing to worry about. Who knew that Catherine’s three sons would ascend the throne, but none of them would have a legitimate son…

Francis I dies. Catherine becomes queen, diligently bears children, and waits. True, once she could not stand it — on Diane’s question, «What are you doing now?» replied that she was studying the history of France and from there learned that always French kings were ruled by whores. However, this episode was not stirred up by either of them — it’s just a worldly matter, it happens.

At the same time, Catherine pleases the court and the nobility with new inventions — at one of the banquets, she surprises the king with a beautiful fork with three tines and an ivory handle. Probably, the success of the fork helped fashion — it just appeared as lush lace collars and a man who wears such a fork is more comfortable than a spoon.

And it is not only for the fork that Catherine should be thankful to the French service. It was she who made fashionable glass from Venice and dishes from Faenza, which after a while became known as faience.

Moreover, before her on the table at once carried everything that was rich, and soup, and meat, and fish, and sweets: what you want, you eat. And on her advice, the dishes began to be served one by one, and at the end — dessert, which had never been in France before. She saved her strength and waited for her time.

It came unexpectedly — at a jousting tournament, Henry II demanded the captain of his guard, Gabriel de Montgomery, to fight him. He tried to refuse, but the king insisted. The captain’s spear stabbed the king in the eye.

Celebrities such as the anatomist Andreas Vesalius and surgical genius Ambroise Paré tried to save him, but he died after ten days of agony.

His son Francis II became king at the age of 15 with little of the intelligence, determination, or health required for the position. Naturally, he threw himself into his mother’s arms, begging her to rule for him.


Франсуа Клуэ. Портрет Франциска II, короля Франции, 1558
François Clouet. Portrait of Francis II, King of France, 1558 / wikipedia.org


Despite the complexities of their relationship, Catherine genuinely grieves for her spouse. She is dressed in her mourning clothes, but instead of white, which was traditionally the color of mourning for the kings of France, her robes were black. This innovation of hers is so appropriate that it survives to our time.

And the queen, who has never been particularly beautiful, buries herself as a woman after the death of her beloved husband. And this in a medieval French court, compared to which even hippie mores might seem Victorian! It seems that she loved him for real…

Not even two years pass, as her unofficial power over the country becomes quite official — the sickly Francis II does not heal in the white world. Next in age, ten-year-old Charles IX takes the throne, and Catherine becomes regent, that is, the official ruler of the state. To call the times of her reign calm in no way possible. The war between Catholics and Huguenots is trying to prevent only the court party of «politicians».

Who was in charge of these people? The Queen herself! As a staunch Catholic, she was not convinced that the Huguenots could not be reconciled. For example, with such as Henry IV, king of Navarre, a man gifted, loving, and bright, even in early childhood, managed to change faith twice — first from Huguenots to Catholics, and then vice versa.

Describe all the twists and turns of the struggle between Catholics and Huguenots during Charles IX — the task of a solid scientific work. I will mention only about a very unusual army, which Catherine put under her banner.

In those years, this group was nicknamed «flying squadron», and it included more than two hundred of the Queen’s maid of honor — attractive, sexy, and lovable. Their numerous lovers talked too much, and valuable information reached the queen.

What Catherine did not allow them, so it is pregnancy: then who will work? For this, she used her talents to create for her chicks effective contraceptives and even introduced such an achievement of civilization as the condom.


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She invented a corset for them and developed new kinds of lipstick herself, more for herself (she had pale lips), but there was still some for the «flying squadron». It was rumored that for the unwanted, she was able to make poisoned lipstick, but this is not proven.

Catherine decided to tame Henry, and for this, she chose a means proven by centuries — marrying his daughter Margaret. The wedding took place just before Bartholomew’s Night… But why did the queen depart from the policy of tolerance and prepare such a nightmare? Where is there any logic in that?

Perhaps there is one reason — Catherine’s authority began to fall even with her son-king. This was reported, and the workers of the «flying squadron» confirmed resurrected her technology of the ancient lord of Syracuse, Dionysius — cunning holes punched in the walls of the castle to peep and eavesdrop.

Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny quickly became almost the leading adviser for the king — this Catherine could not stand it! I will spare you the horrifying details of the murder of Coligny himself and the deaths of a five-figure number of Protestants, killed mostly with cold weapons — knives of the ordinary people.

Did Charles IX consider himself a winner? Clearly not: his position had rather worsened, and the previously existing balance between extreme Catholics and Protestants had been broken. Henry IV, king of Navarre, although saved, was forced to change his faith for the third time in his life, converting to Catholicism. And the question of succession to the throne suddenly became acute — exhausted and lost all hope, Charles IX died of tuberculosis. His last words were, «Oh, my mother…» — he was in the habit of calling on her in every difficulty.


Франсуа Клуэ. Портрет Карла IX, короля Франции, 1572
François Clouet. Portrait of Charles IX, King of France, 1572 / wikipedia.org


Henry III, her last son, by then elected King of Poland, upon receiving word from Catherine, immediately fled the Polish throne for the more attractive French throne. A favorite of his mother’s, he rules with her advice and enjoys dumping the more challenging cases on her. She, on the other hand, works like a hard laborer, trying to do something about a crumbling country with neither money nor harmony.

A special thanks to her from modern music — it was staged on her personal initiative in 1581 performance «Comedy Ballet of the Queen» became the prototype of contemporary ballet. Even in the card game, she revolutionized the game by being the first to suggest covering the back of the cards with a small monotonous pattern on which it would be complicated to make inconspicuous marks. And how many people stayed alive and well thanks to the habit of washing hands before eating — it is simply impossible to count.

The kingdom’s chief crisis manager, she was always there when the going got tough. But she failed to see how ultra-Catholic Henry of Guise seemed to the king even more dangerous than Henry IV king of Navarre, and he made a fatal mistake — without consulting his mother, organized his despicable murder, no less vile than Bartholomew’s Night. Now, he is hated by almost everyone.

Realizing the utter hopelessness of the situation, even Catherine’s iron body is knocked out of the rut. In 1589, she died of an abscess in the lungs, and the state was such chaos that she was even buried almost in a common grave, and her remains were transferred to the family crypt only in 1610.

Catherine was lucky — she did not live to see the complete destruction of her family. Six months later, the fanatical monk Jacques Clement stabbed Henry III to death, and he still had time to bless the reign of the legitimate heir — Henry IV, king of Navarre (really, is it good that Catherine did not have time to see it?).

Whose path did Henry follow to calm the passions and unite the country? Yes, the way Catherine had planned — refusing to try to destroy Catholics or Protestants, inventing and implementing a quite satisfactory compromise between them, and issuing the famous Edict of Nantes, the world’s first law on religious tolerance. So, let us not evaluate her unequivocally… Perhaps the best person to do this task was the Parisian chronicler L’Etoile, whose epitaph I shall end this narrative with.


Here rests a queen, both devil and angel,

Worthy of censure and praise:

She supported the state, and it fell;

She made many treaties

and made many disputes;

She gave the world three kings and five civil wars,

She built castles and destroyed cities,

She has passed many good laws and bad edicts.

Wish her, passerby, Hell and Heaven


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